The “TERF” debate: a primer for the terminally confused

No publication has done more to pour oil over the fire at the heart of the debate over trans rights than the New Statesman, and last night it issued its latest incendiary broadside: an anonymous article purporting to explain the debate and condemn people like Mary Beard and Peter Tatchell for not wanting to be associated with people they consider to be Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, or TERFs.

Generally speaking, any writer who dredges up Joe McCarthy and George Orwell to attack their opponents should not be viewed uncritically; those are pretty clear red flags. I’m not intending to go through a line-by-line rebuttal of the whole article, suffice to say that much of it is grossly misrepresentative.

At its heart though, it is just blatantly misleading. The argument is not about whether trans women are biologically identical to cis women, or even whether trans women have different life experiences than cis women. The argument is about whether that should matter. The argument is whether cis feminists should extend the hand of solidarity out to trans women. To argue that all feminists do is blatantly wrong.

It seems strange to be even having to rebut this. If a major national political magazine were to publish an article arguing that white women are biologically different to women of colour, and that women of colour just have to accept this, the outcry would be near universal. The fact that this article is seemingly being approvingly quoted by people who otherwise consider themselves to be progressive and unprejudiced, shows us that this is a civil rights struggle over which there is still much work to do.

There’s a particularly revealing part of this article, in which the author states – with not inconsiderable alarm – that “in some circles it is considered transphobic for women to question the presence of people with openly displayed male sexual organs in spaces like communal female changing rooms” (my emphasis).

I can well understand that some cis women might be uncomfortable about this. The question is where those people, who a non-TERF would call women (simples!), should get changed. Is the discomfort of cis women so inviolable that the minority, trans women, should have to get changed with men? Or perhaps they should be allocated their own broom cupboard? Again, the analogy with skin colour is hard to avoid: 50 years ago, this was a big deal. Fortunately, we’ve moved on. Maybe your discomfort at getting changed in a room with someone who looks different to you is your problem.

I repeat: this is a civil rights movement. All successful civil rights movements have got in people’s faces, upset them, made them uncomfortable and, yes, occasionally crossed the line and made mistakes. They have to; that’s how they win. If you can applaud a film like Selma, or Pride*, and somehow consider that New Statesman article to be legitimate journalism, then you need to be aware that you are part of the problem.

* Actually, I had a number of issues with that film, but I’m not getting into that here.

1 comment

  1. “The argument is not about whether trans women are biologically identical to cis women, or even whether trans women have different life experiences than cis women. The argument is about whether that should matter.”

    You’re right – it shouldn’t matter. Trans people have an absolute right to equality, dignity, fair treatment and safety.

    Let’s take your analogy of the black and white woman and look at it differently. Let’s imagine that the white woman self-identifies as a black woman.

    She has always been black, she says, despite her appearance, socialisation and upbringing. She seeks validation from the black community and wants to live as a black person, so undergoes various procedures to change her appearance and change her voice.

    She applies for posts that specify that “applications from under-represented ethnic groups would be welcomed”. She wants to share her experience of being a black person and volunteers for various consultative panels and steering groups. She offers to donate her eggs, following an appeal for more donors to help infertile black couples.

    At what stage would the woman’s self-identification as a black person matter, if at all? At what stage would someone baulk and think (even if they don’t say it out loud) – this woman isn’t black. She is white, privileged and immune from everyday, routine and structural racism and discrimination?

    Would we start a war of words with sceptics? Would we accuse them of attacking and bullying, with views that needed to be censored? Would we give the sceptics a name like Trans Race Exclusionary People (TREP)?

    Or would we prefer to discuss the promotion of trans rights, and validate the identity of trans-people, with love and respect, and in a less confrontational, problem-solving way?

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